Solar-panel-manufacturing expansion creating union millwright work in Georgia

FROM LEFT: Steve Raeder, CEO of Summit Ridge Energy; Vice President Kamala Harris; DK Kim, vice chairman of Qcells parent company Hanwha Group

Union millwrights are already working on a $2.5 billion expansion announced yesterday of solar-panel manufacturing facilities in northwest Georgia. Those millwrights and others will be needed at the Dalton factory during the next year, and opportunities for SSMRC members to work at a similar factory in Cartersville, Georgia, are likely, said Robert Strickland, business agent for Millwright Local 1263, which covers Georgia and the Carolinas.

Strickland was present at the Dalton site when Vice President Kamala Harris and leaders of Qcells, the solar-panel manufacturer, and Summit Ridge Energy, the largest U.S. owner-operator of community solar assets, announced the expansion in relation to a deal between Qcells and Summit Ridge that the vice president called the biggest community solar order in American history. Through the agreement, Qcells will produce 2.5 million solar panels capable of powering approximately 140,000 homes and businesses.

The Inflation Reduction Act’s tax credits for domestic energy production and manufacturing incentivized Qcell’s investments in Georgia.

“I think it was a great opportunity to get our brand out there and make us more visible,” Strickland said of Thursday’s event, where he met briefly with Harris and company leaders. He said he anticipated having to explain the SSMRC organization and what millwrights do, but Harris was already aware our members are working for Action Electrical Contractors at the site and we have a training center an hour’s drive away.

“It’s easy to say high-level politicians see everyone as a number,” Strickland continued. “After our conversation, I can attest the administration’s team cared enough to educate themselves about who we are and our association with the project.”

The new building in Dalton is approximately 70% dried in, and millwrights have been working at the site for about two weeks. Action Electrical Contractors, which permanently employs 60 union millwrights year-round in addition to hiring union millwrights for temporary projects across the SSMRC’s 11-state footprint, is installing all the equipment at the Qcells expansion in Dalton. SSMRC millwrights will set the modules that make the solar panels and install material-handling equipment on the warehouse side of the facility. Millwrights’ precision-alignment skills will be critical to the factory producing high-quality solar panels.

A new Qcells factory in Cartersville, Georgia, is also part of the $2.5 billion expansion. Construction began early this year, and Strickland said he is 95% sure Action Electrical Contractors will win the contract to install equipment at that facility as well. If so, the company will hire SSMRC millwrights.

The Qcells factory in Dalton is already the largest solar-panel-manufacturing facility in the Western Hemisphere, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development. Long known as the “carpet capital of the world,” Dalton was the biggest job loser in the nation after the housing-market crash of 2008. Qcells opened its factory there in 2019.

DK Kim, vice chairman of Qcells parent company Hanwha Group, credited local, state, and federal policies with creating an environment for the company to thrive in northwest Georgia and build fully American-made solar panels.

Harris participated in the expansion announcement as part of an “Investing in America” tour highlighting the effects of the Inflation Reduction Act, the CHIPS and Science Act, and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Representatives of our sister organization, the Southeastern Carpenters Regional Council, also met with the vice president, who spoke during the event to a group of about 200 people, most of them Qcells factory employees. Strickland said Harris noted the new facility in Cartersville and the expansion in Dalton will create 2,500 permanent jobs and the opportunity for good, union careers.

While the Biden administration is known for emphasizing at press conferences and other public events that it is pro-union and pro-labor, Strickland said that message often doesn’t resonate because of the context. In a private-session setting, however, the pro-labor message and knowledge had more meaning, he said. “It shows dedication from the administration,” Strickland explained. “The vice president talked about union culture and quality life for union workers and said the administration is supportive of that and wants to grow that.”

The Qcells expansion is one of many clean-energy developments announced or begun recently in Georgia. Union millwrights will work on many of the projects, which include:

  • Preparing Kia’s West Point, Georgia, facility to manufacture its newest electric vehicle, the EV9, and a new SK On plant to produce batteries for the vehicle in Bartow County;
  • A Hyundai electric-vehicle facility in Bryan County;
  • Rivian’s EV plant near Atlanta; and
  • Other investments by EV parts suppliers.

Learn more about the Qcells expansion here and here.